Discontinuous Improvement, System Thinking Will Save Us

November 28, 2012

By Matt Palmer

I came to system thinking by accident. I arrived really just by asking questions about energy. In 2005, I read a brilliant book by Paul Roberts “The End of Oil“.  The book introduced me to all sorts of ideas about energy, I was a complete neophyte, quickly deepening my perspective. I finished the book with more questions, and those questions inspired a desire to create a documentary project that would facilitate dialogue and point to solutions.

As I embarked on this new story about the future of global energy “Unintended Consequences“, the questions that were nagging and bugging me about the energy debate, were resulting from the increasing polarity of the discourse from all sides, most of which, at the core, come from anti-systemic thinking. Good versus bad characterizations.

Our current global energy system is complex, featuring multiple energy sources, productions streams, delivery systems, and consumption patterns. Parts of the world have fully integrated systems, while parts of the developing world lack even basic structures.

Our great generational challenge is how do we transform the energy system? How do we make it better? How do we shift the mix of energy sources in a way that does not collapse the greater system, yet addresses urgent environmental challenges, while at the same time acknowledging that the new energy sources and systems will introduce new impacts and challenges? The problem is not one of economy versus environment, but finding solutions that fully integrate energy, environment, economy, public policy, and social values as essential and critical elements.

We do not have to be scared because we live in turbulent times, because turbulence inspires and creates possibilities. As long as we understand that solving this years problems will create new problems in the future. That means before we call something “green” or “sustainable” we need to ask hard questions about that those terms mean. It means using system thinking.

The current energy debate, the argument between fossil fuel supporters and environmental groups is largely an argument about energy silos. Oil, shale gas, wind, solar, nuclear, biofuels, and geothermal are energy silos. If we continue to argue over which silos should be part of the system, we will not create the system we need. If we do not understand the environment is a crucial part of the economy we will fail. If we do not recognize that we are carbon based mammals and that carbon is our most essential process fuel our system will collapse.

The system is interdependent, not independent. There is so much focus on how fast we can run away from fossil fuels to save the planet, but this may not be the solution we need, and in fact, shutting down fossil fuels would halt the system completely.

I found this fantastic video featuring Dr Russ Ackoff, a world expert in system thinking. It is a great introduction to concepts. One of the things I appreciated the most was his introduction of the idea of discontinuous improvement. How creative and critical thinking can create solutions that leapfrog current situations, as opposed to focusing solely on continuous improvement.

Let me know your thoughts on this subject. How can we inspire greater dialogue rather than continue to polarize, or denigrate those who hold different opinions.

About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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2 Responses to Discontinuous Improvement, System Thinking Will Save Us

  1. “A creative act breaks with what has come before by leapfrogging those ahead of you.”

    I don’t have a background in this type of theory and thus the ‘Doctor’s’ talk was a good introduction. I really appreciated listening to his ideas and think, Matt, it was a great video for stimulating conversation.

    I do however, have a science/medical background and therefore an appreciation for the theory/analysis benefit of ‘understanding the parts.‘ (This talk may also have similar relevance to our medical model and how we approach dysfunction)

    It seems to me that an academic and practical understanding of the parts alongside a love of and appreciation for the whole as something greater – and different – than the sum of the parts will be necessary to ‘leapfrog’ our way to an energy perspective and possible way forward. (Again, maybe leapfrog is the wrong work. Maybe we need to look sideways, too, not just ahead)

    One, however, will probably be dependent upon the other: to do the long, hard work of deep energy understanding and knowledge acquisition and then translating for the larger group will fall on the shoulders of the few. Not everyone has the time or tools to do the deep work. But it must be done.

    Then hopefully there will be among the knowledgable those who will also be wise: willing to live in the arena of doubt and not knowing, to support trial and failure, to come at things sideways and forwards and backwards again and again because it ‘seems’ like there might be a possibility, to know that a creative mind often works in was misunderstood by others.

    I believe that technology is producing a renaissance of sorts. Artists, scientists, musicians, researchers, businessmen, lawmakers… all have unprecedented access to each other and the lines that differentiate each are blurred. I read that the answers to some of the larger questions left to be answered will not come from one discipline or the other but rather from a crew/team with diverse backgrounds and thinkers collaborating together. What fun!

    We have to be willing to imagine that which we cannot see. David Eagleman says that our conscious mind is the broom closet in the mansion of the mind. I suspect we will have to visit the other rooms. That the whole is greater than the sum of its parts may be the most understated scientific equation yet.

    • Great thoughts Carla. I also believe that the solutions may come from divergent, creative minds who are not experts in the particular field. They are the ones who can ask the naive or simple questions that occur to them because they can see things from the outside. I believe doubting those who are certain they know the answers is important. Pushing the boundaries of thought, of science, of certainty will often produce major breakthroughs, or prove certainty to be wrong, or just less certain. It goes back to my last post about being open to being wrong.

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